02 August 2013
Another day, another disputed election
This time it's Zimbabwe. Past election disputes in the southern African nation led to a compromise power-sharing arrangement under which revolutionary leader Robert Mugabe remained president while opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai became prime minister. Citizens voted earlier this week, but Zimbabwean law forbids the reporting of any partial returns. Mugabe's party is already claiming victory while the votes are still being counted, and Tsvangirai's party is reflexively crying fraud. This is understandable. Mugabe has often been a bully in power, and as an old-time revolutionary he's the sort likely to identify any opposition to him with counterrevolution (or "neocolonialism"). By nearly all objective standards his thirty-year reign over the former Rhodesia has been a disaster, an opposite extreme of confrontation and incompetence from Nelson Mandela's (perhaps overly) conciliatory inclusiveness. But it is possible to believe that Mugabe and his party would cheat, and also that they, as the party of the revolution, remain more popular than the opposition is willing to concede. Zimbabwe may be poorer than when Mugabe took over, but his constituents may feel that he has done the morally right things -- confiscating property from whites in particular -- whether anyone benefits materially or not. Whatever the truth of the matter -- and it is even more obvious that Mugabe has alienated multitudes of black Zimbabweans in different ways -- this election follows a sad pattern worldwide. Where outside western Europe (or Japan, I suppose) do parties and candidates concede defeat in elections without crying fraud? I have to be that specific as a reminder that many Americans have been crying fraud over presidential elections since 2000. Liberals insist reasonably that the party that first holds power in any new nation or government must be willing to relinquish power peacefully when the electorate insists, but shouldn't they also address what threatens to become a knee-jerk tendency of opposition parties to assume that their more powerful opponents cheat to keep power? The reflexive distrust of opposition parties by populists and so-called authoritarian democrats is deplorable, but isn't the reflexive distrust by opposition parties of parties in power also deplorable, if to a lesser extent? Some may say not, assuming that power corrupts and aggrandizes itself and requiring a degree of vigilance that looks much like reflexive distrust. Their philosophical distrust may have a corrosive effect over time, however. If every election is assumed fraudulent by somebody, won't it follow eventually that elections themselves are inherently fraudulent? We would then be left with the stark alternatives of anarchy or submission to the certainty of dictatorship. Some say there's a third option: the stewardship of an authoritarian rather than tyrannical regime over the evolution of a "civil society" that suppresses the lust for power and the will to kill to get it. This is what some American thinkers recommend for Egypt, for instance. This preference shares with the reflex distrust of elections a fundamental desire to limit the mandate that comes with elections, to limit the amount of power elections confer on leaders. Inevitably that limits the political power of the people themselves, whose own potential desire for radical change is distrusted because of its tyrannical implications. History justifies some suspicion, but it can't justify absolute suspicion, either of elections or of political power itself. There should be room for disagreement in democratic countries that can be resolved through elections; when disagreement hardens into institutionalized distrust, something has gone wrong. What it takes to prevent that from happening in any country or culture remains to be seen.